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Working with Styrofoam in Stage Design

This post sponsored by Universal Foam Products—suppliers of styrofoam and EPS products.

In this article, Christine Trench talks about styrofoam in stage design. What is it and how do you use it effectively?

I love using styrofoam because it’s so versatile and easy to work with.

Styrofoam Brand foam (blue board) from Dow is typically only available in sheets ranging from ¾” to 4”. But because of the way Dow does things, you would need to buy whatever the retailer had in stock unless the retailer has distribution authorization from Dow.

Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), the white material, is readily available in sheets, blocks, and shapes. It is available in 6 different densities, depending upon the application and can easily be ordered from a company like Universal Foam Products or purchased at Home Depot (available only in 1″ sheets).

What can you use styrofoam for?

Free Standing Units:
If you will be making units that stand on the floor or the stage floor, you will need some kind of heavier frame, like a wooden frame with a stand or bracket at the back. For an example see the cathedral windows, below. 

Hanging Units:
Styrofoam is light enough to hang from the ceiling or stage rigging using fishing line or some similar invisible cord. If is swings, (and you don’t want it to) simply attach some more fishing line to the bottom of it and attach (or weight) it to the floor as well as the ceiling.

Styrofoam is also good for temporary decor around the church building, not just staging. It can be used for kids rooms, foyers, etc (as long as it is in a place where it isn’t being touched, as it breaks easily).

What are the best tools to use on styrofoam?

Really, the only tool that I have found useful to use is a small (narrow blade) X-acto knife. Heated knives do not work well due to the fumes it creates and melting. So even if a store advises you to use that, remember you are not doing small crafts. You’re doing large stage sets and you will find the heated knives unhelpful there.

The best type of adhesive to use with foam is Great Stuff or Enerfoam. It is very easy to use craft pins (rather than tape) to secure cord, wire, or other materials that you have glued to the foam by sticking them in at an angle (on the unseen, back part of the scenery). Pins hold better than tape (which sometimes comes off under the heat of stage lighting). Most paints will work with styrofoam, as long as you first use an undercoat.

Examples of styrofoam in stage designs:

Here are some things I have used styrofoam for:

Christmas in the City
This city-scape was made entirely of styrofoam, with a small wooden bracket behind each unit to make it stand upright and secure on the floor. I used grey undercoat and then used metallic paint applied with paint rollers to make it more reflective to the LED lights. Then I simply added cotton-wool and some spray snow for effect.

Dr. Seuss Christmas Trees
These were simply white styrofoam with a light wooden bracket behind for the stand. LED stage lights were positioned to shine on them (they reflect well, especially the smooth-surface type of foam). They changed color as the lights changed.

Cathedral Windows
These were mainly a wooden window frame with back bracket. In this case, the styrofoam was cut to look like large sandstone blocks (and painted with a water-based craft paint two colors to create a marble/sandstone effect). Then it was glued onto the wooden frame in sections, to create an old cathedral window effect.

Kidcheck Treehouse

Our kids workers used heavy duty styrofoam to make this treehouse effect at our sign-in station for kids church. They used X-acto knives to cut it, but they used heated knives (with face masks) to score the foam to create the wood/bark effect, covered by a thick craft paint.


There is so much more that could be done with styrofoam than I have tried, and because it is so versatile, you only need to use your imagination to come up with other uses for it. Have fun, and don’t forget to share your discoveries and projects so that we can benefit from your experience as well.


Christine Trench and is from Scotland but has lived in Canada since 2009 with her family. She is the head of scenic design at Gateway Alliance Church in Edmonton, Alberta. She’s married to Martin Trench and has two lovely daughters.


Christmas Box Pallet Swirls

9 responses to “Working with Styrofoam in Stage Design”

  1. In respect to cutting styrofoam, we use styrofoam a lot, usually at least an 1″ thickness, and the hot knife is our go to tool. Yeah the fumes can be an issue, so you need to have some good ventalation going, but it leaves no mess, and was much faster both in cutting and especially clean up vs fine tooth hack saw blade, (with the hot knife you do have to keep the knife moving to get a “smoother edge” but distance does wonders in concealing rough edges.) I am curious what kind of exacto knife that you found had a 2″+ length blade, because I would love to try it out to see if I could find a clean cut solution without the fumes?

    I also have found that 16 penny nails at an up angle (head facing down) work great for anchors, or drywall screws hand screwed into the styrofoam.

    Thanks for the article,

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been able to use a dremel with various bits on the foam. Recently I used a round sanding bit to route out what would be the mortar to create a brick wall.

  3. Susan Jensen says:

    We created foam trees for our Christmas stage design and after trying a dremel, then hot knives, different saws and knives, we found a hot wire cutter worked perfectly for ease and for getting the exact shape we wanted. No fumes or mess either. You can buy these at AC Moore for around $15. They’re a lot of fun to use too.

  4. Theresa says:

    I like these saw style knives (available in the floral section of craft stores) http://www.amazon.com/New-FloraCraft-Foam-Cutter–WMU/dp/B00C8W4HWK/ref=sr_1_18?ie=UTF8&qid=1389128688&sr=8-18&keywords=floral+foam+cutter and this style of hot wire cutter for thinner foam http://www.amazon.com/FloraCraft-Styrofoam-Accessories-Styro-Cutter/dp/B000XALM54/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1389128658&sr=8-7&keywords=floral+foam+cutter.

    Electric carving knives work well on quarter inch foam (available at home centers in 4′ x 48″ pieces, fan folded in 2′ sections).

  5. Jenny Boone says:

    I LOVE the city scape… Do you happen to have a pic of it without the lighting to see the paint technique you used better?

    • Darlene Smith says:

      I am getting a piece of styrofoam that is 2 feet thick. What would be the best wat to cut a doorway out of it?

  6. Pat Stevenson says:

    What is the best way to cover seams?

  7. Shibin says:

    I want foarm board

  8. Nicole H says:

    I’m trying to figure out where to purchase large foam sheets. Is there a standard size to these sheets? How do you figure out how much you might need? I want to make a beehive that is 6’X6′ overall. Less width as the hive gets taller. I’m thinking foam would be the best way to do this.

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